Consider the humble Sheep

It doesn’t have to be a particular sheep, a special one, any of them will do. Just an ordinary one such as you’ll find in craggy fields all over this parish. The point is that pretty much any one of these woolly creatures would beat Usain Bolt in a race over 100 metres. The same goes for cattle. Ditto dogs, rabbits, deer, horses and even most cats. Usain may be a world beater amongst humans, but there are a few thousand of our animal cousins in Newmarket, who are faster than him. As a species, even the best of us humans are just not very speedy. And yet…

There is one way in which we can in fact do better than our four-legged rivals. Simply by ensuring that the race is long enough. All of them gallop away initially but none can sustain it. Dogs? Start to flag after a few kilometres. Horses? Are not very happy over the 20km mark. Once you get up to marathon distance and beyond, only humans, slow and steady, are able to keep on keeping on.

The reason is that a million years ago we evolved to be expert at endurance running. The key thing which sets us apart is our lack of fur. This allows us to sweat more easily and thus regulate our body temperature. Dogs by contrast, once they heat up, need to pant and that’s not possible while galloping. It is reckoned that the very earliest human hunters did not rely on any clever tactics. They simply followed their intended prey for as long as it took to become exhausted.

Thankfully, we have since become more sophisticated. Instead of chasing our dinner around the Serengeti, we can drop into Mamma Mia’s. Yet an echo of what We once were remains. Endurance engines that can keep going and going. We still have some of that capacity yet it’s something which we forgot for a while. For most of human history and well into the 20th century, most of us had plenty exercise in the labour of daily life. We walked and lifted and pushed and pulled. However increased mechanisation and in particular the invention of the Car, saw us slowly grind to a halt. For a few decades we didn’t know how to react.

Take your average adult in Newmarket during my youth, say 1970 to 1995. Outside of the senior hurlers and a few more eccentrics. The vast majority, once over the age of 18, did no running whatsoever. Unless Lovett’s bus was about to leave without you. Or maybe your wild limousin bullocks had broken onto a neighbour’s lawn. Running without a specific urgent purpose was simply not done. Sport was only played by a few ‘sporty’ people. Mass participation in the likes of Park Run, Pakie Ryan and Turkey Trot would have been inconceivable. The notion of an ordinary 40-something woman, mother of three, reeling off a 5k under 30 minutes would have made the front page of the Clare Champion. Possibly led to an interview with Gay Byrne. Now it’s an everyday event.

All has changed since the turn of the millennium, and it’s not just in Running. There has been an explosion in the extent to which we participate in walking, cycling, golf, hurling, swimming, aerobics, gym, soccer, handball, squash and horseriding. Children do all these activities and more, but then children have never stopped playing. It is the rise in adult non-competitive sport which is most remarkable. And badly needed it was too. Whereas our brains are bigger than our hunter ancestors, the body hasn’t changed much. It needs to be put through its paces now and then, to ensure good working order. To leave it idle continuously cannot be ideal for either our physical or mental health.

I cannot recommend however, that any of you attempt to race a sheep over long distance. Nor a dog, nor a bullock. Animal Welfare, you see, would take a dim view of it. Health and Safety would also intervene. There would be just too many logistical problems to overcome. But rest assured, particularly if you chose a hot day, long before you got as far as Ennis, your rival would have run out of steam.

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